Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Ghost City

Former cathedral on former Kneiphof island in former Königsberg 

Everywhere you go in Central Europe, you’re travelling to a place that no longer exists. And no place more so than Königsberg.

The centre of the city, now Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, simply isn’t there. Where once were bustling streets and shops and trams and carts and markets... it’s now a tree-lined park, flanked by a couple of highways. The old city is gone.

Many European city centres were devastated by massive Allied bombing and fierce ground combat in WW2, but unlike almost everywhere else, in Königsberg, no one rebuilt what people remembered – mostly because the people who might have remembered were deported en masse after the war: men, women and children. Centuries of the old city’s Prussian history came to an end. There was no one left who could have any sense of nostalgia for what was lost, and so no one was yearning to recreate what once was.

Ruins of Königsberg Castle in what used to be the city centre.
For the post-war Soviet authorities, and for the tens of thousands of Soviet citizens they were relocating into the region, there was certainly no warm feeling for what the place had been. Perhaps what these newcomers felt was even more like, “good riddance,” for a city where the majority of people had voted for Hitler in 1933.

In any case, the new rulers took the ruined city centre island of Kneiphof and dismembered it brick by remaining brick, sending the building materials to Leningrad to help reconstruct that destroyed city. In the 1960s, they blew up the ruins of the castle in what used to be Königsberg’s old town just across the river. The second generation of Soviet citizens probably didn’t miss it any more than their parents would have missed the city’s original inhabitants.

The new city of Kaliningrad grew up outside that abandoned centre, with all the ambitious Soviet architectural and city planning elements to prove it: wide boulevards, quick-build housing blocks, imposing neo-classical government buildings, and monumental squares highlighting heroic soldiers and starry-eyed cosmonauts.

Forget the empty city space. We're in actual space.
(Cosmonaut Monument. Kaliningrad.)
The crass capitalism of the immediate post-Soviet period has left its mark, too: McMansion-like buildings, each with a minimum of two dozen roof angles, excessive iron gates and railings, and out-of-control signage. Thankfully, it is all tempered by some human-sized city projects to make enjoyable, walkable public spaces around the lakes in the north of town, for example. The Russian Federation poured money into the city for the FIFA World Cup in 2018, too. There is a new city emerging, and it has its own charms.


But parts of the old city are still there as well, if you’re willing to look for them. I don’t mean the lonely, rebuilt cathedral, now concert hall, on the formerly central island of Kneiphof, that sad reminder of the city’s exceptional historical discontinuity.

Moskva Hotel, Kaliningrad. (1936)
No, there are other older, pre-Soviet bits scattered around. The inter-war period alone has several major examples. The Haus der Technik (1925), once a trade fair building whose international style in dark brick would fit well in any northern German city of the same era, is now part of the big market area, where, in the food hall next door, Uzbek melon sellers reveal the Soviet link today. The Dvukh Yarusnyy Bridge (Reichsbahnbrücke, 1926) is an infrastructure geek’s Holy Grail: electric trains on top, cars & pedestrians underneath, with a middle section that raises to let the boats go by – and the whole thing originally built as a double-decker swing bridge. The building now known as Hotel Moskva, deceptively plain, looks like it could be in downtown Oslo - though its 1936 build date, three years into the Nazi era, begs some questions.

Villa, Kaliningrad (former Amalienau district, Königsberg).
And then there are the architectural gems in the leafy suburbs of what used to be known as Amalienau or Hufen. This upper-middle class area is where Hannah Arendt grew up, who, after escaping Nazi Germany, would one day describe better than anyone else how ordinary people can commit extraordinarily evil acts in an authoritarian system. The neighbourhood now looks a bit like Pankow in 1990s Berlin: villas in various states - falling apart, fixed-up tastefully, or done-up disastrously by someone with more money than sense. Every other corner reveals a house too beautiful to take your eyes off of, yet too big to contemplate renovating.

Elsewhere in and around Kaliningrad are the 19th century military fortifications: there may be more remaining intact here than in any other city in Europe. Red brick behemoths are seemingly everywhere on the former outskirts, some renovated and in great shape, others slowly being overgrown by the greenery of the decades. It’s a sad irony that many of the massive defences of Königsberg remain, while the city centre they were created to protect was destroyed.

Königstor (1850), Königsberg, now Kaliningrad
19th-century Königsberg is where Käthe Kollwitz was born and raised, in a family bathed in progressive Christianity and Social democratic activism. Through her art, she would become a kind of symbolic soul of that disappeared, cultured Germany and its later self-destruction – embodying in both her life and her work a spirit first of promise, even hope, and then of terrible personal loss and the consequences of horrifically disfigured national ambitions.

Kant's tomb
Go back another century and a half, and you find the Königsberg of Immanuel Kant, European Enlightenment superstar and visionary for the concept of peace through democracy and respect for rights that helped formed the notion of what would eventually – after the murder of tens of millions made a good chunk of Europe finally realise that Kant & others had a point – become the thinking behind the European Union, probably the largest and most successful peace project in history.

Of course, the same Kant who wrote in “Perpetual Peace” (1795) that, “The rights of men must be held sacred, however great the cost of sacrifice may be to those in power,” also helped promote the antisemitic thread of German history that would lead to his nation’s self-immolation – and his own city’s physical disappearance.


Kneiphof, Königsberg: The old city is simply gone...
Today, that empty city centre remains an urban planner’s challenge: what should be done with it? Every now and then, someone suggests rebuilding it as it once was, but it’s hard to take them seriously. Any large-scale attempt at trying to bring back the lost city would not only be absurdly expensive but would also likely only end in a Disney-esque neighbourhood of fakery, a bit like the rebuilt new synagogue and the “Fishing Village” recently erected across the Honey Bridge from the old Kneiphof: too gleaming and soulless to have positive historical meaning. Someone could sell coffees, sandwiches and amber souvenirs in a rebuilt Kneiphof, maybe, but no one would really live there. It would not be a living neighbourhood; it would not be a “place,” let alone the place it was.

Elbląg, Poland: What not to do.
There is another formerly Prussian city, not many kilometres away, in fact, where you can see how horribly wrong such an ill-conceived rebuilding effort can go. Just across the border in Poland is the town of Elbląg, whose centre was also thoroughly devastated by the war and much of it left in ruins for decades - that is, until someone with more ideas than resources 20 or so years ago decided it was time to rebuild the centre in a “pseudo-historical” style. The result is unspeakable architecturally; a slapdash of the ugly and the comically inauthentic that repulses the traditional purist and the innovative moderniser equally. It has almost no connection to what once was and only serves as a warning of what never to do. (The overland boat ride – yes, really – that starts from Elbląg is a treat, however.)

That experience next door shows that, ultimately, the ghosts of Königsberg can never be satisfied. And three quarters of a century on, should anyone be trying to satisfy them anyway? The living city has other priorities.

Please, just make it go away: "House of Soviets"
in Kaliningrad.
Still, one seemingly easy thing that the ghosts and the living would surely agree on, is what to do with the monstrosity in the former old town, just next to where the castle used to be: an abandoned, high-rise construction site that was supposed to be the “House of Soviets.” It’s a slab pile of wannabe-brutalist ugliness that will now never serve any purpose other than to make people take bets on how long it will be before it is torn down. The sooner, the better, really.

However, that wouldn’t solve the core problem, as its elimination would immediately beg the question: what to put in its place? More nothing? 50 more square meters of centrally located emptiness to remind everyone that something’s missing?

I have no answer. I suspect no one does.


Central Kaliningrad is in many ways the last of Europe’s cityscapes to address the legacy of the Second World War. It probably always will be. Not dealing with it is how Kaliningrad deals with it.
And after two or three generations of Soviet citizens living here and another one or two generations of Russian citizens, why should anyone even be thinking about doing things any differently? The occasional voices calling for rebuilding are as lonely as the Kneiphof island itself.

Before and after, Kneiphof: Königsberg/Kaliningrad.
And there is, strangely, something quite honest about how the Kneiphof island – that once bustling city centre – is presented today. Scattered among the 60- and 70-year-old trees in a sculpture park are large signs for visitors with old photos showing how it used to look, with explanations in Russian, German and English. The accompanying texts don’t pull any punches either, with the descriptions explaining what’s missing and what’s long lost. You can take a photo of the park and the sign together, capturing both what was inhabited central Königsberg and the empty greenery that now stands there, like some split-time stereoscope.

And maybe this is the only city centre that makes any sense now: the one that reminds you of its existence by no longer being there.


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Postscript 1: See more photos from Königsberg/Kaliningrad

Postscript 2: I spend a fair amount of time criticising the Russian government for many important reasons, but one small thing they deserve credit for is a new e-visa system that lets citizens of many countries visit Kaliningrad (and a couple other places in Russia) very easily. Cost-free and taking about ten minutes to fill in the online application, the new e-visa only became available a few months ago, but it makes Kaliningrad more open to the outside than it has been for three quarters of a century.

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